One of the great truisms of being an educator is that the students under your care are all unique individuals. They enter into your classroom with varied life experiences, states of intellectual readiness and physical health, minds and hearts filled with hopes and dreams that are theirs alone and, of course, you have those who don’t want to be there at all and would rather still be tucked safely and warmly in their beds. As a teacher, I always built my programme around the fact that I shouldn’t expect all of my students to learn the curriculum in the exact same manner nor at the exact same speed. I had to find ways to help each child to be successful on their own terms. So, each school year, I tasked myself with creating 20-30 individualized academic programmes of instruction and ran them in a collective social setting. What made this easier for me is that, in reality, in any classroom setting the majority of the students fall into a fairly broad band of academic achievement that roughly translates to being in “the middle”. These would be the students who traditionally earned “B”s and “C”s on their report card. While there would be slight variations between these students, most were successful most of the time and were on course to successfully meet the requirements for that particular grade level. At the opposite end of those students who were in “the middle” were those students who struggled mightily and those students at the top end who excelled. While educators often spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about how to help those students who are struggling, that will not be the topic of today’s post. Instead, for a change, we are going to focus on the needs of those kids who excel.
Despite how it may seem, it isn’t always easy to be an academic rock star in a regular classroom setting. One of the main reasons for that is simply boredom. When you possess tremendous skills and knowledge, it can become frustrating to always have to be waiting for your peers to catch up to where you got to a long time ago. In the public school system where I was a teacher, students who excelled at a tremendous rate could be tested for academic giftedness. If the testing process revealed that a student was, in fact, functioning at a gifted level then, a whole host of additional programming options could, in theory, be made available to that child. In other countries, there are whole schools established with the sole mandate of helping children who have displayed giftedness in The Arts or in Athletics, for example. Today’s post begins at one such school in the US called The Professional Children’s School. This school was established in New York City in 1914. It was run for the benefit of children who worked professionally in some facet of the entertainment industry in New York. A quick look at the names of some of those who have graduated from the PCS is to read a veritable Who’s-Who of the entertainment world. Professional Children’s School alumni include Yo-Yo Ma, Beverly Sills, Marvin Hamlisch, Buddy Rich, Vanessa Carlton, Milton Berle, Peggy Lipton, Lorna Luft, Macaulay Culkin, Carrie Fisher, Elliott Gould, Scarlett Johansson and many, many more, including a young singer and dancer named Irene Cara.
Irene Cara was enrolled in the Children’s Professional School in the 1970s. While a student there (and then later upon graduation), Cara earned roles in many Broadway plays and musicals and had some small supporting roles in soap operas and television serials. In 1979, Cara showed up to try out as an extra for a new movie that was inspired by the musical, A Chorus Line. This movie was centred upon a group of young people in a school for the arts who were all trying to break into the world of show business. When Cara performed her audition for a role as an extra, the producers were blown away by her singing voice and by her onscreen presence. In fact, the producers of Fame ended up creating an entirely new character for the movie named Coco Hernandez and gave the role to Irene Cara. Not only that, they had Cara sing the title track to the movie. The song called “Fame….I’m Gonna Live Forever” announced Irene Cara’s arrival as a star! The movie, Fame, became a huge box office hit. Cara won the first of her two Academy Awards for Best Song. She would win her second Oscar shortly thereafter for the song, “Flashdance…What a Feeling!”. Not long after Fame ended its theatrical run, word came out that the story being told in the movie was going to be continued in a television series. Many of the original movie cast signed on to reprise their roles on the small screen. Many assumed that Irene Cara would do so as well, but she declined that opportunity and her role was given to a new actress. Cara justified her decision to turn her back on the role of Coco Hernandez by saying that she believed that many other movie roles awaited her in Hollywood and that she didn’t want to become typecast as Coco just as her career was beginning.
The television version of Fame enjoyed a few seasons of success on network TV before being canceled. Meanwhile, Irene Cara had teamed up with music producer Giorgio Moroder to write the hit song, “Flashdance…What a Feeling!” for the movie of the same name that starred Jennifer Beals as a wannabe dancer searching for her big break. Around the same time, Cara starred in a sequel to the television mini-series, Roots called Roots: the Next Generation. Irene Cara received a Golden Globes nomination for her role as author Alex Haley’s grandmother in this continuing saga. As the 1980s reached their midway point, Irene Cara was one of the brightest names in the entire world of the entertainment industry. And then, it all went away for her.
Another one of life’s truisms is that history is told by the victors and not the vanquished. It is difficult for me to say with any certainty exactly what happened to cause the downfall of Irene Cara’s career but some facts are known and I will share them with you now. As Irene Cara became a bigger and bigger star, she began to receive career advice from other people who were stars in the world of music and television. Those people were becoming concerned about how Irene Cara was being managed by her management team. Specifically, they advised Cara to have independent lawyers look into the terms of her management contract because they felt she was being denied royalties to her music that were rightfully hers. With hit songs such as “Fame” and “Flashdance” under her belt, Irene Cara should have been earning enough money to live a comfortable lifestyle. But, the fact was that she was continuing to live paycheque to paycheque. So, Irene Cara hired new lawyers and soon launched a lawsuit against her own management team in an attempt to recoup lost royalties she felt she was owed. Because Cara had little money of her own to begin with, her management team countered with a succession of lawsuits that essentially bankrupted Cara. The lawsuits dragged on for over a decade. By the time the dust settled, Cara had won a settlement of 1.5 million dollars. Not long after the decision of the court was issued, her management team declared bankruptcy itself. This caused Cara to have to begin new lawsuits aimed at recouping a fraction of that settlement, with her as a creditor. All throughout the time she was engaged in her legal battles, Cara began finding it harder and harder to get work in the entertainment industry. She claimed that her management team had placed her name on a blacklist that prohibited others from hiring her. Her former management team denied this and countered her claim by stating that Irene Cara had always had a reputation for being difficult to work with, and on top of that had become addicted to cocaine and was, in fact, the author of her own misfortune, and that it all had nothing to do with them. What the real story is, I cannot say but, the reality was that toward the end of her career, Irene Cara’s only source of income was from doing voice-over work for commercials and for animated movies. As many of you may know, Irene Cara passed away recently at age 63. The exact cause of her death is unknown.
One of the things that I learned from being a teacher was that ensuring the academic success of my students was only one part of my role in their lives. The physical, social and emotional health of my students was of equal importance and required just as much attention from me as did all of the ABCs and 1-2-3s of the world. I have often felt sorry for young performers such as Irene Cara, Macaulay Culkin, Michael Jackson and others who achieved great fame at a very early age. It must be tough to bear the weight of the responsibility for million dollar entertainment franchises when you are still so young that you don’t even really know who you are as a person yet. One of the goals of The Professional Children’s School was to provide counseling services for their students to help them deal with the pressure that comes from being so famous at such a young age. That such services are necessary speaks to the cutthroat nature of the world in which Irene Cara found herself as she left her teens and entered her twenties. To protect such children from ruthless promoters was one of the reasons that The Professional Children’s School was started over a century ago and why it still exists today. At the end of the day, it can’t be easy to be gifted with such talent. Somewhere along the way, balance becomes equally as important as ambition and intellect and creativity and talent. Irene Cara’s story stands as a cautionary tale, not only for those with exceptional talent but also, for those who surround them. It is important to strive for greatness, for sure but, it is also important to love and be loved for that is the true path to happiness.
The link to the video for the trailer for the film Fame can be found here.
The link to the official website for Irene Cara can be found here.
The link to the official website for The Professional Children’s School can be found here.
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